Most of all, I’m affected. When I’ve never been affected by anyone, and that means I’m also confused and maybe a little afraid. Or maybe a lot afraid.
Not knowing what else to do, I pull Alayna into the crook of my arm, close my eyes and pretend to sleep. I wish that I could fall into the bliss of unconsciousness, where thoughts and feelings can’t bite and nip at me as they do as I lie here wide awake. It’s not like there’s anything new to dwell on. The same thoughts recycle through my mind: We’re falling in love. Can I actually be in love? I have to end this game. I have to tell her everything. But then I’ll lose her. And won’t I lose her anyway? Eventually doesn’t all love end?
Or what if it doesn’t end? What if this door she’s opened, if the flood of sensation she’s unleashed, is a permanent part of me now?
It’s nearly an hour later before her breathing settles into a deep rhythm, and I know she’s asleep. I slip out of her embrace and throw on some sweats. Even with clothing on, I feel stripped naked. Is this what love feels like?
I take a seat in the armchair next to the bed and watch her as I try to sort it all out. Mirabelle’s wedding-day words return to me: When you love someone, their world interests you more than your own. Everything about Alayna interests me more than myself. That’s why I’d thought of that memory. Because somewhere in my f**ked-up psyche, I understood that what I felt for her was love before she even named it. I’d avoided the acceptance of it, knowing that this amazing, wonderful birth of love inside me couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Whatever I do next—and I still have no idea what it will be exactly—I do know that there will have to be a denial. Either I’ll deny this emotion and all that this woman brings to me, or I’ll deny Celia and her f**ked-up game. Denying this love would be painful for us both, but admitting my hand in deceiving Alayna…I can’t even bear to think about how much she’d despise me for that.
I spend the rest of the night hours looking for any other way out of this mess I’m in. I come up with plan upon plan that involves further manipulation and lies. But I don’t want to be that person anymore, so I abandon each one and am left without a strategy. This is another first for me, another newness I can credit to the beautiful creature sleeping in my bed.
When the pale light of morning starts streaming through the window, I imagine for a moment waking her up and telling her I love her too. With words and then again with my body. I can picture the warmth in her gaze as I say it. I can hear the way she’ll say it back to me. Again and again we’d pass the declaration back and forth with our lips, with our tongues.
This fantasy doesn’t go far though, because of all the decisions I’ve yet to make, there is one thing I know for absolute sure—I can’t tell her how I feel without telling her all of it. My definition of love is still forming, but I am certain it includes transparency and honesty, and I can’t give either without shedding all my secrets. I can’t truly proclaim my love to her while keeping this dark curtain closed over one of the most important parts of us.
It’s an ache in my side. A double-edged sword. I can’t claim her without releasing her. So I let her sleep.
Needing a distraction, I pull out my laptop and look through my emails. I’d turned everything off the day before, taking the day off work at Alayna’s request, and now I have a slew of unread messages to sift through. Quickly, I realize that many of them are from Roger and other members from my Plexis team. Despite my attempts to stall, the board is taking a vote to sell at noon Monday. Which is today. My personal life is in an uproar, but this—my company—this I can do something about. It’s business, it’s familiar. It’s where I can make a difference.
It only takes a couple of texts and a handful of emails to arrange my departure later this morning. I shower and pack my things, careful not to disturb Alayna. I stare at her for long minutes before leaving. There’s so much I want to tell her, so much I want to be with her. But I don’t know how. So, though I’m fearful this could be the last time I see her na**d in my bed, I slip out without a goodbye.
Leaving her is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the only thing I can do.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I find fresh coffee. And Celia.
She’s sitting alone at the counter bar, as if waiting for me.
I don’t speak to her or acknowledge her in any way until after I’ve poured myself a mug and taken a long swig. I need the shot of caffeine to deal with her. I wish it were something stronger.
Glancing at the clock on the coffeepot, I say, “It’s barely eight.” I set my mug down. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?”
Her voice meets my back. “I’m talking with Sophia about some redesign she wants me to do.”
Yes, that. Right. My mother had announced that the day before. Celia may legitimately be working for us, but I know her well enough to know that her visit was purposefully planned to coincide with my own visit.
I turn to face her, scanning the kitchen for signs of others. “Where is she then? My mother.”
Celia shrugs. “She went to go get some magazine with a picture she’d like to use as inspiration.” She props her elbows on the counter and rests her chin on her clasped hands. “What about you? Why are you up and dressed for business during your Hampton vacation?”
“An emergency at work. My vacation is over.”
“Oh, Hudson, I’m sorry to hear that.” My mother sashays into the room, a stack of magazine clippings in one hand and an orange juice in the other. “Are you and Alayna both leaving?”
I eye her drink as she takes a sip. My mother never drinks OJ pure. “No. I didn’t want to wake her.” I throw a glance at Celia. She can take that as she’d like—it doesn’t really matter at the moment.
If she thinks anything of it, she doesn’t let on.
“I’ll leave my car for her to take back to the city if she’d like,” I say to my mother. Though, I’m not exactly sure Alayna drives. “If she’d prefer a cab, you can give her this for fare.” I pull out my wallet and hand my mother a hundred. She has money she could give Alayna as well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she claimed she had no cash just to give Alayna a hard time.
“Okay.” She takes the cash with a pucker of irritation in her brow that says that she hates to be bothered. “How are you getting to the city?”